Now we know what the buzz around Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan, 22, is all about. Winner of the International Jean Sibelius Competition in Helsinki, Finland, in 2000 (the youngest in its history) and the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 2005, Khachatryan first played in the Southland with the Minnesota Orchestra last year at UCLA and in Orange County.
On Tuesday he made a spectacular debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of French conductor Stéphane Denève at the Hollywood Bowl. The vehicle was Prokofiev's heartfelt Violin Concerto No. 2, the composer's last Western commission before he returned to his much-missed homeland in 1932 after a self-imposed exile from the Soviet Union in 1918.
Poetic, introspective, effortlessly virtuosic, Khachatryan mined the classical lyricism of the concerto's first movement, the sweet and sour nostalgia of its glorious slow movement and the fiery gypsy rhythms of the last. His sound was vibrant and rich, and his interpretation was mature, although surely it will deepen.
As winner of the Queen Elisabeth Competition, he plays the lustrous 1708 "Huggins" Stradivarius, on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation.
Denève accompanied sensitively and with transparency. The miking justifiably favored the soloist, but the orchestra sounded terrific.
The French conductor's account of Dvorák's bucolic Eighth Symphony, which closed the program, again relied on Gallic virtues of leanness and clarity, eliciting remarkable degrees of light and shade within a purposeful structure.
But by keeping the dynamic and expressive contrasts under such tight control, Denève undercut the symphony's dramatic possibilities, the sense of intoxication with nature and how that connected with Czech nationalism, evoking tragedy, yearning and delirium. Catherine Ransom Karoly was the eloquent flute soloist.
Denève opened with Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor as transcribed for orchestra in 1929 by Leopold Stokowski. Unlike his earlier version of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor (which reached millions through Walt Disney's 1940 film "Fantasia"), this transcription doesn't pummel the listener into submission. It begins quietly, adds dark, muted colors discreetly and evokes light passing through stained-glass windows as it builds a monumental edifice.
Long out of fashion for their use of large orchestras and romantic, sustained phrasings, such transcriptions once introduced generations to the wonders of Bach, and this affectionate performance may have been a welcome sign of their comeback. Let's have more of them.